The readings from both last week (the Twenty-Ninth Sunday in Ordinary Times) and this week (the Thirtieth Sunday in Ordinary Times) have themes that are closely connected. In many ways, they deal with two sides of the same coin, since they deal with the two different roles of Christ: Jesus as High Priest and as Sacrificial Victim.
The first reading for this week is taken from Jeremiah 31:7-9. This text was written within the context of the period immediately preceding the Babylonian Exile. As the Babylonian Empire rose in power and conquered various lands, one of the nations they conquered was Israel. Upon conquering Israel, the Babylonians forced the majority of the inhabitants of that country to relocate to Babylon. This had a profound impact on Israel’s relationship with God, for God had so decreed to enter into a covenant relationship with the people of Israel, and one of the signs of that covenant was how God gave them a homeland in the land of Israel. Inhabiting that land in a state of peace and stability was seen as a sign of God’s blessing. God permitting political strife and conquest by foreign powers was seen as a form of punishment by God. Yet, while God is a just God, punishing the wicked, God also desires our repentance and conversion. God thus in all things shows us the way to overcome our sin; He sets forward a path by which God and man are reconciled, and, once our relationship with God is restored, He gives us all we need to remain in such a state. Thus, the first reading for this week speaks of God telling the Prophet Jeremiah of the future liberation – which, for the Ancient Jews, would have been associated not only with political liberation but spiritual redemption as well. God says, “The Lord has saved His people, the remnant of Israel. Look! I will bring them back from the land of the north, I will gather them from the ends of the earth, the blind and the lame in their midst, pregnant women, along with those in labor – an immense throng – they shall return.” (Jeremiah 31:7-8) That is to say, it does not matter how many segments of the people of Israel have been destroyed; from a remnant God will restore the people of Israel to their glory; it doesn’t matter how far the people of Israel have been dispersed, God will gather them back together into one place, so that the nation of Israel will be restored, and this will serve as a testimony to all people that God is a God of mercy, Who is loyal to His covenant relationship even when man is not.
The covenant between God and Israel was fulfilled in the person of Jesus. Everything in the Old Testament points towards Christ, Who fulfills God’s plan of salvation. In doing so, He opens up the covenant relationship to all people, so that now all who have faith in Christ are counted as God’s chosen people. In the Gospel reading for this week, what is said symbolically within the context of God’s relationship to an entire nation is explicated to show how it applies to a particular individual. The Gospel reading is taken from Mark 10:46-52. This is one of the many miracle stories associated with Jesus, in which Jesus heals a blind man. To connect it to the first reading, one level of meaning is that the blindness of the poor man is symbolic for the spiritual blindness brought about by sin. Just as the societal corruption of Ancient Israel brought about a moral blindness that precipitated their fall, likewise our personal sin creates a moral and spiritual blindness that precipitates our separation from God. Yet, just as God was able to restore His chosen people from a tiny remnant, or reunite them in spite of them being scattered throughout the world due to centuries of political conquest and migration, and just as Jesus was able to restore the sight of the blind man, so too is God’s grace capable of healing our spiritual blindness and restoring our moral and spiritual purity.
And this healing is truly a restoration. In the traditional Catholic perspective, sin is seen as privation. God is all-good; therefore, if God were to do anything evil, He would cease to be morally perfect, and thus cease to be God. God’s act of creation, and that which results from it, must also be good. All that exists, by virtue of the fact that its existence was caused by an all-good God, is by its nature good. Evil is thus the absence or corruption of that good we were granted at out creation. Evil thus has no existence in and of itself. This does not mean that evil thoughts, actions or desires don’t exist; rather, what makes them evil is the fact that some other quality – namely, some element of what makes us good – is absent or corrupted. A thing is evil to the extent that its goodness is absent or has been corrupted.
Evil is thus like a sickness: sicknesses represent something gone wrong, something thrown off balance, something within the body not operating as it ought. Likewise with evil: we fall into evil when we fail to actualize the good for which we were created. And the story from this week’s Gospel summarizes this point the best: blindness is the absence of sight, just as evil is the absence of good. Thus, the spiritual healing which Jesus grants us is analogous to what He did to the blind man: He restores that which is lost or absent.
And this restoration takes place on all levels. When one reads the texts, one will notice that the blind man gets up and calls out to Jesus first. It is only after this that Jesus heals him (cf. Mark 10:47-48, 51-52). This could easily imply that we need to take the first step, we need to take the initiative, and God simply brings to completion or fulfillment that which we begin. Yet, even the faith by which the blind man approaches Jesus is the result of God’s grace. This is what is known as prevenient grace. Prevenient grace is when God makes His grace manifest for the purposes of enlightening the heart and mind of man to know that He is in a state of sin, and therefore is in need of salvation, and further, that this salvation comes only through Christ. It is prevenient grace that brings about conversion. Although conversion is a free act of the will, it is only possible if we first have the assistance of God’s grace. Faith is thus itself a gift of God. We make the choice to approach God, and are therefore sanctified and strengthened to do His will, as a result of God’s prior initiative. God always takes the initiative in bringing us to salvation. As Jesus Himself says, “No one comes to Me unless the Father Who sent Me draws them…” (John 6:44) Many of the Church Fathers support and explain this claim. St. Augustine, most notably, in his work On the Predestination of the Saints, writes,
For though the capacity to have faith is of nature, is it also of nature to have it? “For not all have faith” (2 Thessalonians 3:2), although all men have the capacity to have faith. But the apostle does not say, “And what have you capacity to have, the capacity to have which you received not?” but he says, “And what have you which you received not?” Accordingly, the capacity to have faith, as the capacity to have charity, belongs to men’s nature; but to have faith, even as to have charity, belongs to the grace of believers.
That is, humans have it within their power to have faith, but we only have faith in practice if we are first filled with the grace of God. Both taking that initial step in approaching God – which is the starting point of faith – and the growth in faith, are a gift of God’s grace. St. Augustine thus concludes, “[T]herefore both in its increase and in its beginnings, faith is a gift of God.”
God the Father thus acts through Christ as the vessel of His saving grace, which heals us of the scars of our sin. Though man, through the misuse of his free will, may fall from a state of grace, if man preserves in a state of grace, and therefore attains to salvation, his striving towards salvation was possible only because of the assistance of God’s grace, both from its initial origins to its completion and perfection in heaven.
Jesus is the source of our salvation, the means by which we receive reconciliation with God, because He is the true mediator between God and man. St. Paul writes, “For there is one God and one mediator between God and man, the man Christ Jesus.” (1 Timothy 2:5) Jesus is the true mediator between God and man precisely because He is both God and man. He is who He represents. In the Old Testament, the High Priest was believed to be the mediator between God and man. Jesus being both God and man, and thus the true mediator between God and man, fulfills this role. The letter to the Hebrews thus describes Jesus as the “great high priest Who has ascended into heaven.” (Hebrews 4:14) Jesus pleads our cause before the Father, and the Father grants it to us on the merits of Christ’s death and resurrection. Yet, when Jesus represents us in the sight of the Father, He does so not merely as a disinterested representative, but as a human who is able to empathize with us in an intimate way. This is the great scandal of Christianity – which St. Paul in his first letter to the Corinthians calls “a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles” (1 Corinthians 1:23). In the person of Jesus, God Himself became man. He took upon Himself and endured all that we go through. Jesus is Lord, that is to say, He has within Himself the sovereign authority of God; yet, He is a sovereign Lord Who has a vested interest in mankind. He knows our sufferings, He knows what sin has done to man. The letter to the Hebrews, in affirming that Jesus is the High Priest, goes on to say that “…we do not have a High Priest Who is unable to empathize with our weakness, but we have One Who has been tempted in every way, just as we are – yet He did not sin.” (Hebrews 4:15) Jesus is the sinless One; yet, this sinless one does not look down upon us. He is a judge, but He is not judgmental in the common usage of this term. He allowed Himself to experience hardship. He allowed Himself to be subject to temptation, and allowed Himself to experience the highest or most intense manifestation of God foresakenness.
This thus heightens Jesus’ mercy, for Jesus knows our weakness, He intimately knows our suffering. He intimately experienced the sad, lowly state of prodigal man. Thus, the second reading for this week says that the High Priest is man’s “representative before God” who “offer[s] gifts and sacrifices for sins.” (Hebrews 5:1) Yet, he is capable of empathizing with those on whose behalf he offers the sin offering (“He is able to deal patiently with the ignorant and erring” [Hebrews 5:2]). The author of the text then goes on to say that this was fulfilled by Jesus.
Jesus more specifically fulfills this in His death. Jesus, being the sinless One, is thus true High Priest and perfect Sacrificial Victim. He is capable of offering the perfect sacrifice to God for the forgiveness of sins. Yet, what He offered to the Father on our behalf was His own life. And this is where last’s weeks readings come in. The first reading from last week is taken from Isaiah 53, the famous suffering servant song. In verse 10, it is written, “But it was the Lord’s Will to crush Him with pain. By making His life a reparation offering, He shall see His offspring, He shall lengthen His days, and the Lord’s Will shall be accomplished through Him.” In verse 11, the author goes on to say, “My servant, the just One, shall justify the many, their iniquities He shall bear.” God’s salvific plan is accomplished through the suffering of Christ, and thus, in a paradoxical manner, Christ is glorified on account of the lowliness He experienced in His death. It is through the just One taking upon Himself the sins of many that we are all made just.
Jesus on the Cross did not promise to make sin and evil go away. Rather, in taking it upon Himself, He paradoxically used it as the means of salvation. Thus, although sin, pain and suffering should be avoided, being a disciple of Christ does not mean pretending that it will never happen. In the Gospel reading from last week, taken from Mark 10:35-45, James and John approach Jesus and ask Him to give them something. When Jesus asks what it is, James and John respond that what they want is to be close to Jesus when He comes in glory. To this, Jesus responds, “You know not what you are asking. Can you drink the cup that I drink…?” (Mark 10:38) Cups were frequently used by the Ancient Jews as a symbol for suffering (take, for example, Jesus’ words in Matthew 26:39). Jesus goes on to say, “The cup that I drink, you will drink…but to sit at my right hand and my left hand is not mine to give but is for those whom it has been prepared.” (Mark 10:39, 40) To be a disciple of Christ means to be an imitator of Christ. Any who are truly followers of Christ will be expected to drink the cup He drinks. But, to participate in the glory of Christ is reserved only for those who have been prepared for it, that is, those who have remained loyal to the end.
Jesus was glorified only after He humbly subjected Himself to God’s salvific plan. This means that Jesus did not approve evil, but He was willing to experience it head-on for the sake of the Kingdom of God, for the sake of effecting God’s plan of salvation. He made Himself a victim for our salvation. Jesus was thus glorified as a result of His self-giving, self-sacrificial love. To be glorified as Jesus is glorified, we thus must fight against sin, but also must be willing to withstand it, out of love for God and neighbor. Jesus thus reveals the great paradox of Christian ethics: glory stems from humility. Jesus says, “[W]hoever wishes to be great among you must be a servant; whoever wishes to be first among you must be a slave to all.” (Mark 10:43-44) Jesus took part in the supreme act of self-giving love in giving His life for us, not thinking of His own good, but being willing to give of His entire life for the sake of our salvation. We thus need to be imitators of this. It is only through this that we are pleasing to God, and thus it is only through this that we are glorified.
The conclusion: Humans are weakened and brought to nothingness because of our sin, like the people of Israel conquered and scattered by enemies. Yet, just as God is able to restore the people of Israel from a tiny, scattered remnant, so too God in His grace is capable of restoring man to the goodness for which he was created, no matter how badly it is warped by sin. This is true spiritual healing, whereby God and man are reconciled. This plan of salvation is fulfilled in Christ, Who, as God Incarnate, is the true mediator between God and man. He represents us in the sight of God, pleading our cause before the Father, therefore making Him the vessel of Divine mercy and grace. We can trust Jesus to be a faithful advocate since He has an intimate stake in humanity’s salvation: in becoming man, He subjected Himself to the very temptations and sufferings that man undergoes. He entered into, existed within, the parameters of man’s fallen existence. We thus have a High Priest Who can empathize with us, Who is faithful to us to the end because He understands our depravity, even experiencing the depths of God-foresakenness itself. Christ emptied Himself in such a manner to save us from sin. It was thus the ULTIMATE expression of self-giving love. To be a disciple of Christ means to be an imitator of this. We must readily accept that circumstances will occur wherein man is called upon to empty himself out of love of God and neighbor. It is ONLY through THIS that we are made partakers of Divine glory. Yet, we should not despair, for we have God Himself as a partaker in our suffering. We should rather say with the Psalmist: “The Lord has done great things for us, we are filled with joy!” (Psalm 126:3)
- To see last week’s and this week’s readings, click on: http://www.usccb.org/bible/readings/102118.cfm, and: http://www.usccb.org/bible/readings/102818.cfm
- St. Augustine, On the Predestination of the Saints, translated by Peter Holmes and Robert Ernest Wallis. From The Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers, vol. 5, edited by Philip Schaff (Buffalo: Christian Literature Publishing Co., 1887). Accessed on: http://www.newadvent.org/fathers/15121.htm. These excerpts in specific are derived from chapters 10 and 35.